Ecology and value theory

Issue: 153

Jean Parker

A review of Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015), £19.99

Jason W Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life sets itself the challenge of locating an account of capitalist commodity production inspired by Karl Marx within the biological, chemical and geological totality we normally call “nature”. The ambition of the book is therefore immense. Moore proposes a method for understanding world history that shows how economic development is connected to “long-wave” ecological transformations. At a time when humanity faces profound and simultaneous ecological and economic crises, Moore proposes a kind of meta-theory that explains them as the outcomes of a single logic.

Ultimately, however, Capitalism in the Web of Life fails to provide a satisfying account of what Moore calls “nature-in-capitalism and capitalism-in-nature”. In the process he butchers the tools Marx developed for understanding the dynamics of capitalism. In this way Capitalism in the Web of Life muddles the very theory we most need to understand—and destroy—the system that brings both the global economy, and the Earth system itself, to the brink of destruction.

Capitalism in the Web of Life is deeply thought-provoking and evocative. Yet Moore’s evocations never fulfil their promise. Instead the text quickly, on almost every page, brings in new concepts and frameworks which are again replaced before their full implications are discussed. The ceaselessly shifting theoretical terrain is made even harder to access by Moore’s appetite for riffing on the theme of Marxist phraseology. We read of the “tendency of the rate of ecological surplus to fall”, the “combined and uneven model of development [of human natures]”, “praxis of external nature”, “gendered surplus”, “accumulation by appropriation”, and “capitalism’s world praxis”.1 With this stream of neologisms, Moore regularly elides the degree to which his own work diverges from that of Marx.

In the interests of space I will focus primarily on one aspect of Moore’s work—his relationship to Marx’s labour theory of value. Speaking endlessly of the “law of value” and the centrality of labour productivity, Moore nevertheless replaces the role Marx assigned human labour as the source of all value in the dynamics of capitalism with a notion that the energy and fertility of non-human nature is what drives economic growth and decline. This, very often subtle, break with Marx is embodied in Moore’s central conception of capitalism as a “Cheap Nature Project”,2 a system reliant on the “Four Cheaps” (labour, food, energy and raw materials).3 His use of the word “cheap”—denoting commodities with a low market price (and for Marxists as generally embodying less living labour)—­disguises the fact that what he is often referring to is the use value of naturally existing substances such as not-yet-mined coal or uncultivated fertile soils.

Moore never makes an argument against exploited human labour as the source of all value in capitalism, and yet use values continue to creep into his account of both how capitalists accumulate and how their system booms and busts. Examples include his discussion of the relationship between “more calories” (use values) for “less labour time” (values), his formula “energy returned [use value] on capital invested [value]”, or his treatment of fossil fuels, where he speaks of “transforming nature’s work into the bourgeoisie’s value. Yes, coal and oil are dramatic examples of this process of appropriating unpaid work”,4 and elsewhere “the scale, speed and scope of planetary transformation [after 1820] surely owed much to the transformation of coal into capital”.5

Marx’s approach is quite distinct: “The determination of the market value of products, ie also products of the soil, is a social act, even if it is performed by society unconsciously and unintentionally, and it is based necessarily on the exchange value [ie embodied human labour] of the product and not on the soil and the differences in its fertility”.6 Bourgeois ideology and economics may wish coal could be turned into capital, but Marx showed that the only part of capitalist production that can increase the size of capital is exploited human labour. Marx was very aware that “nature really matters”, but it matters and interacts with capitalist commodity production in different ways from those proposed by Moore. The spectrum of fertility and scarcity cannot tell us about profits and losses. The capacity to extract more calories or kilowatts out of the environment may coincide with either massive investment and windfall profits, or with produce dumping, sackings and closures. We cannot understand what drives businesses into new rounds of production, new techniques and new frontiers (or indeed into new crises) without Marx’s version of value.

In many places Moore positions as an extension what is actually a fundamental rejection of Marx’s approach:

Failing to see the appropriation of Cheap Nature as central to world accumulation had led to a major misrecognition of capitalism’s laws of motion: namely, that these laws of motion work exclusively within the circuit of capital and that socio-ecological relations outside the circuit of capital are contextual and not constitutive. This misrecognition has prevented Marxists and Greens alike from seeing how nature-as-oikeios matters… Indeed, the great mechanisations of the past five centuries are dwarfed by the contribution of Cheap Nature to world accumulation. Appropriated nature is a force of production.7

Or elsewhere:

The law of value, far from reducible to abstract social labour, finds its necessary conditions of self-expansion through the creation and subsequent appropriation of Cheap Natures. These movements of appropriation must, if capital is to forestall the rising costs of production, be secured through extra-economic procedures and processes.8

As he points out in the second quote, Moore argues that the accumulation of capital is only possible if the price capitalists pay for the “inputs” into ­production—labour, food, energy and raw materials, are kept below the economy-wide average.9 According to Moore, Cheap Nature enables ­capitalists to “raise labour productivity above the prevailing system-wide average without a corresponding increase in constant capital (machinery and inputs)”.10 Conversely, “if Cheap Nature turns costly, accumulation grinds to a halt”.11

Rather than argue for a break with Marx, Moore justifies this approach by repeatedly citing a single line from the Grundrisse where Marx writes: “Here, natural fertility of the soil can act like an increase of fixed capital”.12 Moore stresses that this insight was “no throwaway comment”.13 However, the full passage makes it perfectly clear that Marx believed the fertility of the soil could act like fixed capital in the agricultural sector only in situations where the capitalist mode of production is not yet fully established.14 Yet this forms the key to Moore’s understanding of capitalism right up to today.

Moore would have done better to look at Marx’s extensive discussion of the role of a naturally occurring waterfall used by a capitalist (with the aid of a waterwheel as a prime mover in a factory) to increase the productivity of labour (in volume 3 of Capital in his discussion of “ground rent”). Unlike coal for steam, which is, by the time of its purchase as a commodity, already mined, refined and transported by human labour, the waterfall is purely a use value despite, in this case, playing the same role as a steam engine in production. Marx argues:

The natural force [the waterfall] is not the source of the surplus profit, but simply a natural basis for it, because it is the natural basis of the exceptionally increased [in relation to the industry standard of steam power] productivity of labour. Use value is altogether the bearer of exchange value, but not its cause. If the same use value could be obtained without labour, it would have no exchange value… If the various different values did not balance out into production prices and the various individual production prices into a general production price that governs the market, a rise in labour productivity resulting from the use of a waterfall would simply lower the price of the commodities produced with the waterfall without raising the portion of profit contained in these commodities, just as increased labour productivity in general would not be transformed into surplus value if capital did not appropriate as its own the productive power, natural and social, of the labour applied…

The waterfall, like the earth in general and every natural force, has no value, since it represents no objectified labour and hence no price, this being in the normal case nothing but value expressed in money.15

Once Moore parts ways with the labour theory of value, he discards the fundamental key to Marx’s critique of capitalism. Marx was only too aware of the ways in which the capitalist mode of production prioritises some human labours, and some of the Earth’s wealth, over others. What Moore misses is that these laws are not value judgements made by capitalists, but rather the dynamics that all capitalists are ruthlessly subjected to in their blind competition with each other. It is competitive accumulation—a force rarely mentioned by Moore—that drives capitalists and states to develop chemical and biological production processes that will be unleashed, even if the consequence is a sea full of plastics and air full of carbon dioxide. It is competition that drives capitalists endlessly to increase the value and sophistication of constant capital. In the process they tend to undermine the very basis of both economic growth and the profitability of their sector16—exploited living labour.

Alongside the notion of the Cheap Nature strategy, Moore’s main theoretical contribution of Capitalism in the Web of Life is his concept of the “oikeios”, “the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment”.17 Moore proposes this as a method for escaping what he understands as the “Cartesian” (or modern) dualist separation of society and nature. Instead of thinking of capitalism “acting on” nature, the oikeios asks us to remember that capitalism is a part of nature, and that the geological, chemical and biological environments shaped by capitalism are therefore no less “natural” than any other.

The problem with Moore’s use of the oikeios is not that it attempts to bring our understanding of capitalism and the natural world into the one frame; at one level he is right to say that the stock market is a way of organising nature. The problem is his assertion that we can understand the operations of this totality with a single, unified theory.

As seen above, Moore proposes that the processes of commodity production described by Marx (which, as I have argued, Moore diverges from significantly) need to be understood as resting on a broader base of processes he names “appropriation”. While he sometimes describes the economic moment as “pivotal”, in fact for Moore the driving dynamic of the oikeios is not commodity production but (what he sees as) the “extra-economic” processes that strive to uncover new Cheap Nature—science, rationalisation and colonial expansion. In Moore’s “dialectic of productivity [exploitation] and plunder [appropriation]”, plunder is firmly in the driving seat.

Moore argues that for commodity production to remain profitable, the mass of non-commodified nature must be larger than that represented inside the circuit of capital. Capital accumulation, therefore, depends on the appropriation of an ever larger mass of “unpaid work/energy” provided by human and extra-human natures, which includes unpaid domestic labour, the labour of workers raised in peasant families (outside of the circuit of capital) and the energy of forests, soils, oceans and minerals.18

Like Moore’s slippery use of the term “Cheap”, at the heart of his concept of appropriation is a broad use of the word “work” that awkwardly straddles use value and value. The unpaid labour of women in the home, the exploited labour of workers raised in peasant families and fossil fuels, all “work” for capitalism, not in the sense of providing a necessary basis for exploitation, but as a mass of energy that must continually outweigh that of the capitalist sphere.19 It is the appropriation needed to expand this mass, not the dynamics of competition, that Moore believes drives colonial and imperial expansion, and history itself: “capitalism expands not to expand the domain of commodification as such; it expands to shift the balance of world accumulation towards appropriation”.20

In place of Marxist economics and the natural sciences, then, Moore proposes a very general “long wave” pattern of boom and exhaustion that plays out over “long centuries”.21 Crudely summarised, Moore’s attempts to chart how ecology impacts on capitalist crisis amount to the claim that the bringing of newly discovered natural resources into production, or “the appropriation of biophysically rich frontiers”22 creates a boom, which eventually exhausts, creating a crisis. That there is a “tendency for the ecological surplus to fall”:

Capital’s quantism must be remade in successive eras. This occurs because historical natures that initially liberate a wave of accumulation become exhausted. The Four Cheaps become dearer. Exhausting the possibilities for reproducing Cheap Nature means one of two things, often in combination. One is that historical nature gets “wiped out” in some way… Another is that nature gets “maxed out”; and continues to deliver work/energy, but at a volume and cost that no longer sustains accumulation.23

If Moore’s work were simply aiming to explore the ways that limits to commodity production are continually set by nature (itself produced in part by human history), and then often overcome in processes that unleash unforeseen consequences (regularly devastating for humans and the rest of nature), the oikeios would be a useful concept. However, this part of Moore’s work amounts to a materialist determinism—new wealth discovered that eventually wears out over a hundred years.

Ultimately Moore’s long-wave meta-theory, and concepts such as the “tendency of the ecological surplus to fall” cannot explain the dynamism, flux and devastation of historical capitalism. For this we need Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—the very dynamic Moore abandons with his rejection of the labour theory of value.

For all their provocative promise, Moore’s departures from Marx do not leave us better equipped to understand, and intervene in, the crises we face. It is the relentless search for profitability that explains why the economy is mired in seemingly permanent stagnation after the crisis of 2008. It is the unequivocal need for short-term profits that stymies action on climate change and continues the drive to ever more environmentally destructive production techniques. Marx, and not Moore, created the analytical tools needed to explain the dynamic that drives our system to the brink of ecological and economic devastation.

Jean Parker is a researcher and member of Solidarity in Australia.


1 Moore, 2015, pp91-109; 111; 112; 134; 145 and 150.

2 Moore, 2015, p17.

3 Moore, 2015, p118.

4 Moore, 2015, pp241; 96-97; p71. Emphasis in the original.

5 Moore, 2015, p137.

6 Marx, 1991, p799.

7 Moore, 2015, p119.

8 Moore, 2015, p67.

9 If we take what Moore proposes to be the most recent “long century” of accumulation (1870-1980)—Moore, 2015, p120. Moore is asking us to accept that for over 100 years energy, food and raw materials and labour power were all consistently cheap (p54). His depiction of these “inputs” into production as use values forgets that they too are produced by capitalists as commodities, and indeed only produced to the extent that a reasonable rate of profit can be made.

10 Moore, 2015, p146.

11 Moore, 2015, p193.

12 Marx, 1973, p748.

13 Moore, 2015, p217.

14 The relevant passage reads: “This contradicts the law of the development of capital, and especially of the development of fixed capital. Such a progression can take place only at stages where the mode of production of capital is not yet adequate to it, or in spheres of production where it has assumed predominance only formally, eg in agriculture. Here, natural fertility of the soil can act like an increase of fixed capital—ie relative surplus labour can grow—without the amount of necessary labour diminishing (eg in the United States). The gross profit, ie the surplus value, regarded apart from its formal relation, not as a proportion but rather as a simple magnitude of value without connection with any other, will grow on the average not as does the rate of profit, but as does the size of the capital. Thus, while the rate of profit will be inversely related to the value of the capital, the sum of profit will be directly related to it. However, even this statement is true only for a restricted stage of the development of the productive power of capital or of labour”—Marx, 1973, p748 (my emphasis).

15 Marx, 1991, p787.

16 Perhaps unsurprisingly Moore completely mischaracterises Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, as arising from intensified competition—Moore, 2015, pp141-142.

17 Moore, 2015, p4.

18 Moore, 2015, pp96; 152; 101.

19 In footnote 16 on page 95 Moore acknowledges that we cannot measure the worth of things outside the commodity system. Yet Moore’s theory of appropriation rests on the ratio between this and the size of the circuit of capital. Moore’s approach of sliding between using price, calories and mass to compare these only illuminates the problem.

20 Moore, 2015, p102.

21 Moore adopts the “long centuries” periodisation proposed by Giovanni Arrighi (1994) with the rather unsatisfying statement: “I make no pretence that [Arrighi’s long centuries] are the best possible; they are simply the most reasonable I could find. This book does not reconstruct the narrative because I do not think we know—yet!—how to reconstruct that narrative”—Moore, 2015, p120.

22 Moore, 2015, p115.

23 Moore, 2015, pp112-113. Quantism here refers to the way in which natures are made quantifiable in order to be incorporated into financial markets.


Arrighi, Giovanni, 1994, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (Verso).

Marx, Karl, 1973, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Penguin),

Marx, Karl, 1991, Capital, volume 3 (Penguin Classics).

Moore, Jason W, 2015, Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso).